How to tackle an uphill climb on a bicycle

To get to the top, you need tailored training which targets specific muscle groups, increases your endurance resistance and your strength, but what truly makes a difference is your mental well-being. Josu Larrazabal, Head of Performance of the Trek-Segafredo team is convinced of this.

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Uphill climbs have always been the greatest challenge for cyclists, for professionals and amateurs alike; cycling up a hill is a struggle to overcome their limits. The most indelible pages of the history of this sport have been written up on the mountains, and there is nothing more thrilling than climbing the most iconic peaks of cycling. To climb up hills and mountains, however, you need to be in perfect physical and mental condition: how do you train and prepare for these climbs? We got some answers from Josu Larrazabal, Head of Performance of the Trek-Segafredo team.

Before you even start training on your bike, how do you acquire the endurance required for climbing?

"As in all endurance sports, you need a significant workload: I mean in the region of 25-30 hours of training per week. There are three fundamental aspects you need to develop physically: mobility, core and strength. In terms of mobility, we must avoid any tensions that may arise during a mechanical sport such as cycling, which we often run the risk of compensating for with our back, for example. Next, we need to train our core, which allows us to withstand the workload and to keep it up for an extended period of time. Lastly, we need to train our strength, which we can do at the gym, paying particular attention to the muscles that require the most effort on a bike: the key exercise here is squats.

So how do you train on a bicycle?

“You begin with low-intensity work and build up from there, working on the most specific endurance depending on your objective. If you're training for short climbs, such as in the Flanders or the Ardennes, you will have to make repeated 3-5 kilometre climbs at a fast pace, whereas if you are training for a cycling grand tour, where the climbs are longer, your training will focus on a less intense pace that lasts longer, in other words a more demanding type of training”.

What mistakes should be avoided?

"Keep an eye on your weight. A lot of people think that the most important thing is to arrive with the best possible ratio of weight to strength, but this could actually be a mistake, because you need to have energy first and foremost, and every cyclist should achieve their own maximum values. Then, once your strength has been trained, then you can give your weight the last finishing touches, but take care not to overdo it, so try to avoid too big a weight loss in a short space of time”.

As you pedal uphill, how do you best manage your energy?

"This is not an issue for professionals, because during races they do not manage their energy, but rather follow whoever is in front of them, and when the race explodes, everyone has to go at their own pace, and every cyclist knows perfectly well what this is. Certainly, it is clear that how the end of the race will be tackled is something they know right from the start, eating properly, drinking plenty of fluids, wearing the right gear, to be sure that in the final part of the race, they will succeed in keeping up their maximum pace. This is different for amateurs tackling a cyclosportive, where it makes sense for them to manage their energy, not giving it their all at all times, so they can actually reach the finish line”.

How important is mindset and how do you train it?

"When you put your body to the test, either for a sprint or for a climb, during a football match or for any sport actually, you need to be able to experience those thoughts, feel those sensations. Everyone has their own strategies to stay as long as possible in that particular state of mind, half-way between physical pain and mental motivation. This is what the work of a sports psychologist such as Elisabetta Borgia tries to do, to enable every racer to find the right solution. Certainly, just as some cyclists are better at tackling climbs, some in timed laps, some at sprinting, other cyclists are stronger at the mental level. In fact, the physical difference between two racers tackling the stage on the Alpe d'Huez or on the Mortirolo is minimal, the biggest difference is at the mental level”.

At the end of a cycling session, what is the best way to recover energy quickly and avoid feeling too tired or in pain?

"As soon as they pass the finish line, racers are handed garments to cover up and avoid catching cold, along with a recovery drink, a mixture with a high protein content, to be taken within the first half-hour to forty-five minutes, what is referred to as the metabolic window during which the body is much more prepared to assimilate foods. Then there's the cool down period: when you end a stage with maximum effort, you cycle on rollers at low intensity for 10 minutes to eliminate the lactic acid build up and stretch your leg muscles. Then there is cryotherapy, massages and all the other useful practices to recover more quickly”.

In your opinion, where does the beauty of the climb lie?

"It is the perfect example of a challenge: you set off without seeing where the climb finishes, because at the beginning the summit is covered, then comes the time when you start to guess the road ahead, you start to approach the summit, and at the end you can look down and see what you've achieved. There is the challenge against the mountain and the challenge against yourself, which is also a spiritual process; it symbolises so many things we have to do in life. If you move forward, even little by little, and don't give up, you eventually get there."

What is your absolute favourite climb?

"One of the most special is definitely the Sella, because it is truly magical at the top, with all the rocks and the magnificent scenery".